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Trump Officials Call For States To Expand COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you're 65 years or older, the Trump administration now says you should be eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine right away. It's one of several changes announced today. And NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has more on this.

And Selena, I want to start with the shift in policies. What did Trump administration officials say?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Well, you remember how the first priority group for vaccination was frontline health workers and long-term care residents and staff. Well, the second priority group, according to CDC recommendations, was supposed to be people 75 and older and essential workers like grocery store staff, teachers, agriculture workers. Well, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said today in a briefing, basically, that is too slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX AZAR: It's simply much easier to manage allocating vaccines and appointments to everyone 65 and over rather than narrower, more complex categories.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He also said states should begin opening up to - things to people with underlying health conditions. Now, the federal government doesn't control priority groups. States will have to agree with them and go ahead and make the change.

CORNISH: But since some states have already been doing this, how much of a shift will it be?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: You're right. Florida has been vaccinating people over age 65 - also, Washington, D.C., and others. New York just announced that change today. But the federal officials are suggesting another group as well - people with underlying conditions. And that is a big change and a big group with more than a hundred million people across the country.

And meanwhile, the number of vaccine doses distributed is still under 30 million total. So there is the danger that if demand so drastically outstrips supply and you don't have the vaccinators or scheduling systems to keep up, you could have a lot of frustrated people. You know, we've already seen long lines in some places, scheduling websites completely overloaded. I did ask an administration official about this and was told their message to the public is, be patient; it'll get better.

CORNISH: What about the other challenges - long lines, online scheduling? Did they say anything about it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, they basically said to stay patient, and they also said that they're calling on states to move to other venues for administrating vaccines, like local pharmacies, community health clinics, megasites like convention centers and stadiums. And they announced they won't be holding back second doses anymore. And if that sounds familiar, it's because that's what the incoming Biden administration made news last week announcing. So the Trump administration preempted them on that.

And I should say that these changes weren't framed as an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong so far. Federal officials described the vaccine distribution several times as flawless and put the problems with the sluggish rollout squarely at the feet of states.

CORNISH: Other things we might have missed in terms of some of these policy shifts.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the reaction to them has been a bit mixed. One concern is equity, that a bigger eligibility pool will unfairly advantage tech-savvy, well-resourced people over others. Claire Hannan, the head of the Association of Immunization Managers, is specifically worried about opening eligibility up to the 100 million people with underlying conditions.

CLAIRE HANNAN: This is unquestionably making things harder and will cause considerable confusion among the public.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Some public health experts were more positive. They said that with so many people dying and so much uncontrolled spread, maybe these changes will offer more flexibility. We'll just have to wait and see how many states actually do all of this and whether that helps speed up the pace of vaccinations.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you for the update.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.